The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: Volume LI, by Mohandas K. Gandhi

The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 1958-c.1988/1999, 98 vols in one, 47006 pages

Volume LI of this collection of everything of which there’s a record that Gandhi ever wrote or said covers the period from September 1-November 15, 1932. He turns 63 during this time. For the entire period covered by this volume, like the preceding two volumes, he is in prison.

Not as much jumped out at me while reading this as worth writing about compared to a lot of the previous volumes. A lot of the content of this one is correspondence from prison about topics he has written about a great deal in the past, so a lot of it feels repetitious to me.

The big event of this volume is his fast concerning Untouchability, which had been building for some time. The immediate issue is the electoral scheme the British had mandated where Untouchables were provided with separate electorates to ensure they’d have representation. Gandhi objects on the grounds that it interferes with the message he and other Hindu reformers are putting forth of “Stop ostracizing these people and treating them as inferior,” and replaces it with a message of “Given that these people will always be ostracized and treated as inferior, let’s put a scheme in place to enable them to band together against the majority and safeguard their rights.”

But as he states frequently, it’s really not the electoral scheme that is the evil he is concerned with. It’s an inappropriate way of dealing with the evil, in his opinion, but it’s not itself the primary evil. The primary evil of course is Untouchability itself.

So nominally the aim of his fast is the withdrawal of this electoral system, but that’s not really its deep purpose. He wants to, in effect, fast for the eradication of Untouchability, but that’s too amorphous an outcome. He believes he needs to have some more concrete, identifiable outcome—something that either unambiguously happens or doesn’t happen—that will determine when and if he can cease the fast, or must continue it and die.

But he’s clear with people that while the withdrawal of this electoral scheme (which in fact happens quite quickly) will end this particular fast, he will continue to monitor progress on the Untouchability issue itself in India, and if he is unsatisfied that Hindu hearts are in fact changing and Untouchability is lessening, he will simply fast again in the future, perhaps with some other suitable “hook” like the separate electorates to relate it to.

I think what’s going on here is Gandhi knows the electoral scheme is “pro-Untouchable” on the surface, and that there is a risk that his opposition to it will be misinterpreted. A critic will be able to challenge him with “You can’t justify opposing this tool for protecting our rights with wishful thinking about Hindus in the future ceasing to oppress us,” just like when contemporary conservatives decry affirmative action by insisting that it is better to just be colorblind as a society and not discriminate, it comes across as hollow and almost always insincere.

But if those conservatives before and after making those claims lived their lives as if eradicating racism were a high priority for them, if they accompanied their opposition to affirmative action with a recommitment to pursue the same ends of racial justice by means other than affirmative action, and followed through on that commitment, one might react differently. If they were willing to die to wake their fellow citizens up to the importance of eradicating the evil of racism, then one would be all the more willing to take them seriously.

And that’s in effect what Gandhi is doing. He’s insisting on and acting on his belief in justice for the Untouchables even to the point of risking his life, to prove that his opposition to this particular method of serving that segment of the population is sincere and not a product of any anti-Untouchable bias of his own.

Although he pushed the same handful of core issues for decades—the rejuvenation of cloth spinning and other village crafts, religious tolerance and Hindu-Muslim unity, the ending of Untouchability, independence of India from the British Empire, and the rights of women among them—at various times he moved different ones center stage in his life. If anything, spinning may have had the longest run in the number one spot. But now we see him moving the Untouchability issue to the fore.

Again, if he’s going to oppose this scheme that supposedly helps the Untouchables, he wants to do it as one who is established as fully committed to the cause of wiping out Untouchability.

In his writings he makes only passing reference to difficulties he experienced during the brief fast, but I recall from reading biographies of Gandhi that in fact his health took an alarming turn for the worse during this period, and that that’s one of the reasons the various parties so quickly agreed to go along with his wishes and kill the idea of separate electorates for Untouchables.

It’s not realistic that one person, even Gandhi, is going to inspire hundreds of millions of followers of a religion to all at once reverse themselves on a practice that they have accepted as ordained by God for centuries. But I don’t know what you can ask of him more than what he did. He of course doesn’t see it as satisfactory to change a few minds, open a few hearts, but really that is probably the ceiling. Even being as clearly sincere as he is on the issue, and being willing to die for it, I don’t know that there’s any way he could bring about more change than that in his lifetime.


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